28 OR 29 DAYS? A Roman History of FEBRUARY
As it's the 29th of February today, and as leap years only come around every 4 years, I decided to do a post on where this oddity in our calendar actually came from, and why February has so few days in it. And like a lot of little oddities in our culture, this one came from the Romans.
ROMULUS - THE FIRST KING OF ROME (r.753 - 716 BC)
The (supposed) first king of Rome, Romulus, whilst ruling his new city, noticed an increasing number of feasts, festivals, military ceremonies and religious celebrations going on. As a result, the Roman calendar was created by his priests as a means of keeping track of all these days. In this way, the Roman calendar, more than anything, was a religious tool determined by priests in order to map all of Rome's religious festivals.
(ABOVE: Romulus and his twin brother Remus (the sons of Mars according to legend) suckling from the she-wolf after their abandonment)
A Roman month was divided into 3 periods:
• Kalends - the beginning of the month when a crescent moon appeared, related to the Latin "Kalare" = "to call"
• Nones - First quarter of the moon:
- on the 5th of Jan / Feb / Apr / Jun / Aug / Sep / Nov / Dec
- on the 7th of Mar / May / Jul / Oct
• Ides - Indicated a full moon
- on the 13th of Jan / Feb / Apr / Jun / Aug / Sep / Nov / Dec
- on the 15th of Mar / May / July / Oct
Monthly milestones like all of these were referred to adjectively, e.g.:
• 1st of January = Kalendae Ianuariae = "January Kalends"
• 5th of February = Nonae Februariae = "February Nones"
• 15th of March = Idus Martiae = "March Ides" (Caesar was famously assassinated on the "Ides of March")
The rest of the days were referred to in reference to these milestone days:
• The day BEFORE each of these days was Pridie ("the day before")
• The day AFTER each of these days was Postridie ("the day after")
• 'Eve' derived from "vesper", Latin for "afternoon" - the afternoon before the next day
Astronomers in the ancient Middle East had already calculated the time between each solar equinox (the solar equinoxes being "Vernal Equinox" (Spring), Summer Solstice (Summer), Autumnal Equinox (Autumn) and Winter Solstice (Winter)). They calculated that a year was 365.242 days, and nature had already provided them a 'pie chart' in the sky to track time easier in the form of the moon. As a result, many ancient cultures, like the Romans, worked off a Lunar Calendar, with each cycle of the moon taking 29.5 days.
(ABOVE: Modern representation of a Sumerian religious ("Zuist") calendar)
Romulus' calendar had 10 months of either 30 or 31 days, beginning in March and ending in December. As a result, this calendar only had 304 days in a year, with 6 30-day months and 4 31-day months:
• Martius - 31 days
• Aprilis - 30 days
• Maius - 31 days
• Iunius - 30 days
• Quintilis - 31 days
• Sextilis - 30 days
• September - 30 days
• October - 31 days
• November - 30 days
• December - 30 days
(Notice how, in the absence of January and February at the start of the year in this calendar, the months from September to December (the Latin words septem meaning "7", octo meaning "8", novem meaning "9" and decem meaning "10") line up well as the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th months, which is what their names mean.)
ROME'S 2nd KING: NUMA POMPILIUS (r. 716 - 672 BC)
(ABOVE: Drawing of a coin depicting Numa Pompilius)
Romulus's calendar was still short of a full proper year by 61.25 days, and a new year started on the new moon before Spring Equinox. Romulus's successor, Numa, removed a day from each of the even-numbered months, as even numbers were considered unlucky in Rome. This made the 304 year calendar now 298 days long. Numa wanted his new calendar to have 12 moon cycles in it though, as there are 12 cycles of the moon in a year. To make this new calendar, after removing days from 6 months, had 56 days to spare to make 2 new months, and as 56 was an even number, he rounded this to 57 days and created January and February:
• Ianuarius = 29 days
• Februarius = 28 days
(While February had an even number of days in it, it was the month dedicated to spiritual purification, so it was weirdly let aside.)
("Februum" is Latin for "purification")
While this new calendar was still off from what we have today, it was FAR closer than before.
THE 2 FEBRUARIES
To make things a little more complicated for you to understand (sorry), Februarius was actually divided into 2 separate parts: the first 23 days, and the last 5 days: Every year, Numa's calendar would be out of line with the seasons by 10 days, so every other year, these last five days were just ignored, and a 27 day leap-month (called "Mensis Intercalaris") was added after every other 23rd of February... or after the 24th of February every 4 years.
In summary, 54 days were added and 10 days were removed every 4 years, so 44 days were added every 4 years, meaning 11 days were effectively added per year.
• Years divisible by 400 are leap years (e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400)
• Years divisible by 100 are NOT leap years (e.g. 1700, 1800 1900)
• Years divisible by 4 are leap years (e.g. 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016...)
With this, 4 years was equal to 1,465 days, making every year 366.25 days. Again, not accurate to today's calendar, but closer still.
JULIUS CAESAR'S SOLAR CALENDAR
This system could have worked out; today, every 19 solar years (235 lunar months) roughly lined up, so adding in a leap month to keep the seasons in order would have reset itself.
BUT, leap months were added according to plan; Politicians often asked for leap months in order to extend their term, or to forget them to get their opponents out of office sooner. When Rome went to war, leap months could often be forgotten for a while.
(ABOVE: Marble statue of Julius Caesar)
Julius Caesar spent much of 49 BC in Egypt, while 365 day calendars were in place. So in 46 BC, he threw the Lunar Calendar out and installed the Solar Calendar. Ianuarius and Februarius had already been moved to the start of the year:
• 153 BC was the first year when January was celebrated as the beginning of the new year, as January was the month that Consuls (senators in charge of the Roman army) took office, and Romans mostly referred to each year in reference to whoever served as Consul that year.
Caesar's new Solar Calendar in 46 BC started on the 1st of January, like today of course. At this time, normal calendar had 355 days in it, so to get this up to 365, Caesar added 10 days to different months:
• Ianuarius = 2 days added = 31 days
• Februarius = 0 days added = 28 days (23 + 5 days)
• Martius = 0 days added = 31 days
• Aprilis = 1 day added = 30 days
• Maius = 0 days added = 31 days
• Iunius = 1 day added = 30 days
• Quintilis = 0 days added = 31 days
• Sextilis = 2 days added = 31 days
• September = 1 day added = 30 days
• October = 0 days added = 31 days
• November = 1 day added = 30 days
• December = 2 days added = 31 days
Since a tropical year is 365.242 days, Caesar added a leap day every 4 years, placing this new day after the 23rd of February. Eventually, for all he and his successor, the first Roman emperor Augustus, did for the calendar, the months Quintilis and Sextilis were named after them:
• Quintilis became "July" after Caesar's assassination in 44 BC
• Sextilis became "August" in 8 BC to honour the first emperor.
(ABOVE: Marble statue of Augustus Caesar (born "Gaius Octavian"), Rome's first emperor, reigned 27 BC - 14 AD)